1964 - The Year The Sixties Began

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“If my son now felt that a fight for human dignity in Mississippi was his business—was the business of his generation—was I to say, ‘No, no, I lied when I said a person must act on his beliefs. I didn’t mean it.’” Andy’s parents were “frightened beyond words.” But they signed the permission slips and sent him on his way.

Weeks later, after attending a brief training session in Oxford, Ohio, with hundreds of other summer volunteers, Andy set out for Mississippi, where he had been assigned to work with two experienced field secretaries in Meridian and Neshoba Counties. Within 24 hours he was dead.

In 1964 Philadelphia, Mississippi—the Neshoba County seat—was a quiet town of 5,500 residents, most of them white and of modest circumstances, living their lives in tidy ranch-style houses adorned with New Orleans grillwork and plantation-style porticoes, and the rest poor and black, inhabiting small, drafty “nigger shacks,” often without indoor plumbing or electricity. Apart from its neat white-steepled church, a handful of steel stacks that sent up gray smoke from the town’s three sawmills, and a high water tower bearing the town’s name, Philadelphia was an unremarkable place, tucked away behind a thick forest of fragrant second-growth pine and set high on one of the sweeping red-clay hills that slope along the easternmost sliver of the state.

By the early 1960s the town was losing population, and fast. Even in its heyday Philadelphia hadn’t been much to look at. The “business district” was a handful of brick buildings, two or three stories tall, stretching out along eight city blocks. The courthouse was the center of what civic life there was. People were said to be kind and generous. It was the kind of place where you’d stop to stretch your legs, fill up the gas tank, grab a bite to eat—and leave.

There, on the evening of June 21, 1964, Cecil Price, the deputy sheriff of Neshoba County, delivered three civil rights workers—Andrew Goodman, aged 20; James Chaney, aged 21; and Michael Schwerner, aged 24—into the hands of a mob. Goodman had been in Mississippi for only one day. He and Schwerner, a field secretary for the Congress of Racial Equality who also hailed from New York and had been in Mississippi for several months, were each murdered by a single bullet to the chest. Chaney, a black staff member with CORE’s Meridian office and a born-and-bred Mississippian, was beaten senseless, then killed with three gunshots to the head and chest.

The execution party placed the bodies in the trunk of a nondescript sedan and buried them at a remote site where contractors were in the process of building an earth dam.

Testimony would later reveal that as he aimed a gun at Schwerner’s chest, Alton Wayne Roberts, a member of the posse, asked, “Are you that nigger lover?” Schwerner replied, “Sir, I know just how you feel.” Roberts shot him dead.

Forty-four days later the bodies were discovered. The public announcement of the deaths created a groundswell of sympathy for the civil rights movement that followed on the heels of a remarkable legislative achievement—the passage and enactment in early July of a new law that President Lyndon Johnson said would go “further to invest the rights of man with the protection of law than any legislation in this century.”

Sweeping in its reach, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 barred segregation in places of public accommodation, including hotels, movie theaters, parks, restaurants, and stores; prohibited labor unions and employers from discriminating in hiring or promotions on the grounds of race or gender; created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to monitor compliance with the employment regulations; and empowered the government in Washington to suspend federal funds for states that still segregated their schools and other civic institutions.

The bill had been a long time in coming. John Kennedy pressed for it in the months prior to his assassination, but grassroots civil rights organizations had been agitating for at least a decade to see passage of its employment and public accommodations sections. When Lyndon Johnson signed the law into effect on the evening of July 2, in an East Room ceremony at the White House, it was far from clear that the South would accept enforcement of its provisions. Just that afternoon Rep. Howard Smith of Virginia had denounced the act as “this monstrous instrument of oppression upon all of the American people.”

Speaking to a national television audience, Johnson announced that “we have now come to a time of testing. We must not fail.”

A year or two earlier it wouldn’t have been unthinkable for the Deep South to resist compliance with the new law. But in the aftermath of the bloody civil rights campaign in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, and now in the wake of the murders of the three civil rights workers in Neshoba County, the country was in no mood to brook further dissent from Dixie.

Weeks after Johnson signed the new civil rights bill into law, newspapers across America covered a press conference that the Goodman and Schwerner families held in New York City. There, in a voice cracking with emotion, Andy Goodman’s father told reporters that “our grief, though personal, belongs to the nation. The values our son expressed in his simple action of going to Mississippi are still the bonds that bind this nation together—its Constitution, its laws, its Bill of Rights.